Weather

Weather is a term that encompasses phenomena in the atmosphere of a planet. The term usually refers the activity of these phenomena over short periods, such as hours or days. Average atmospheric conditions over significantly longer periods are known as climate.

When used without qualification, "weather" is understood to be the weather of Earth.

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Basic mechanism

Weather most often results from temperature differences from one place to another. On large scales, temperature differences occur mainly because areas closer to Earth's equator receive more energy per unit area from the Sun than do regions closer to Earth's poles. On local scales, temperature differences can occur because different surfaces (such as oceans, forests, or ice sheets) have differing physical characteristics such as reflectivity, roughness, or moisture content.

Surface temperature differences in turn cause pressure differences. A hot surface heats the air above it and the air expands, lowering the air pressure. The resulting horizontal pressure gradient accelerates the air from high to low pressure, creating wind, and Earth's rotation then causes curvature of the flow via the Coriolis effect. The simple systems thus formed can then display emergent behaviour to produce more complex systems and thus other weather phenomena. Large scale examples include the Hadley cell while a smaller scale example would be coastal breezes.

The strong temperature contrast between polar and tropical air gives rise to the jet stream. Most weather systems in the mid-latitudes are caused by instabilities of the jet stream flow (see baroclinic instability). Weather systems in the tropics are caused by different processes, such as monsoons or organized thunderstorm systems.

Because the Earth's axis is tilted relative to its orbital plane, sunlight is incident at different angles at different times of the year. In June the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun, so at any given Northern Hemisphere latitude sunlight falls more directly on that spot than in December (see Effect of sun angle on climate). This effect causes seasons. Over thousands to hundreds of thousands of years, changes in Earth's orbital parameters affect the amount and distribution of solar energy received by the Earth and influence long-term climate (see Milankovitch cycles).

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Terrestrial weather

Fair weather Cumulus clouds
Fair weather Cumulus clouds

On Earth, common weather phenomena include such things as wind, cloud, rain, snow, fog and dust storms. Less common events include natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms. Almost all familiar weather phenomena occur in the troposphere (the lower part of the atmosphere). Weather does occur in the stratosphere and can affect weather lower down in the troposphere, but the exact mechanisms are poorly understood [1].

The atmosphere is a chaotic system, so small changes to one part of the system can grow to have large effects on the system as a whole. This makes it difficult to accurately predict weather more than a few days in advance, though weather forecasters are continually working to extend this limit through the scientific study of weather, Meteorology. It is theoretically impossible to make useful day-to-day predictions more than about two weeks ahead, imposing an upper limit to potential for improved prediction skill.[1]

Chaos theory says that the slightest variation in the motion of the air will grow with time. This idea is sometimes called the butterfly effect, from the idea that the motions caused by the flapping wings of a butterfly eventually could produce marked changes in the state of the atmosphere. Because of this sensitivity to small changes it will never be possible to make perfect forecasts, although there still is much potential for improvement.

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Shaping the planet

Along with plate tectonics and ocean circulation, weather is one of the fundamental processes that shape the Earth. The process of weathering breaks down rocks and soils into smaller fragments and then into their constituent substances. These are then free to take part in chemical reactions that can affect the surface further (e.g., acid rain) or are reformed into other rocks and soils. Weather also plays a major role in erosion of the surface.

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Human history

Badly Flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Badly Flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Weather has played a large and sometimes direct part in human history. Aside from climatic changes that have caused the gradual drift of populations (for example the desertification of the Middle East, and the formation of land bridges during glacial periods), extreme weather events have caused smaller scale population movements and intruded directly in historical events. One such event is the saving of Japan from invasion by the Mongol fleet of Kublai Khan by the Kamikaze winds in 1281. A series of great storms throughout the 13th century caused the powerful English Cinque Ports to be silted up and hence lose their influence. More recently, Hurricane Katrina forced the temporary abandonment of the entire city of New Orleans in 2005.

The effect of seasons on peoples' lives has long also caused them to observe and celebrate certain events during the calendar, some of which, in altered form, are still observed today. Christmas, for example, is the Yule of the pagans, celebrated around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere).

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Forecasting

Weather forecasting is the application of science and technology to predict the state of the atmosphere at a future time. Prior to the advent of scientific methods of weather forecasting, a large body of weather folklore developed to explain the weather. An example is the Groundhog Day celebration near the end of winter in parts of the United States and Canada. Today, weather forecasts are made by collecting data that describe the current state of the atmosphere (particularly the temperature, humidity and wind) and using physically-based mathematical models to determine how the atmosphere is expected to change in the future. The chaotic nature of the atmosphere means that perfect forecasts are impossible, and that forecasts become less accurate as the range of the forecast increases.

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Weather modification

Attempts to control the weather have been carried out for many years. The most common efforts to modify the weather involve cloud seeding to stimulate rainfall or suppress hail. The results of these efforts are mostly ambiguous.

On a grander scale, science fiction authors have long posited the idea of terraforming other planets in order to make them habitable by human beings. While this may be possible in the distant future, this is far beyond current technology.

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Extremes

The coldest air temperature ever recorded on Earth is -89.2°C (-127.8°F), at Vostok, Antarctica on 21 July 1983. The hottest air temperature ever recorded was 57.7°C (135.9°F), at Al 'Aziziyah, Libya, on 13 September 1922. The highest recorded average annual temperature was 34.4°C (94°F) at Dallol, Ethiopia. The coldest recorded average annual temperature is -50.6°C (-59°F) at Vostok, Antarctica; the coldest average annual temperature in a permanently inhabited location is at Resolute, Nunavut, in Canada.

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Extra-terrestrial weather

Jupiter's Great Red Spot
Jupiter's Great Red Spot

Studying how the weather works on other planets has been seen as helpful in understanding how it works on Earth. [2] Weather on other planets follows many of the same physical principles as weather on Earth, but occurs on different scales and in atmospheres having different chemical composition. The Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan discovered clouds formed from methane or ethane which deposit rain composed of liquid methane and other organic compounds. Earth's atmosphere includes about six latitudinal circulation zones, three in each hemisphere (see Hadley cell). In contrast Jupiter's banded appearance shows over a dozen such zones, while Venus appears to have no zones at all.

One of the most famous landmarks in the solar system, Jupiter's Great Red Spot, is an anticyclonic storm known to have existed for at least 300 years. On other gas giants the lack of a surface allows the wind to reach enormous speeds: gusts of up to 400 metres per second (about 1440 km/h / 900 mi/h) have been measured on the planet Neptune. This has created a puzzle for planetary scientists: The weather is ultimately created by solar energy and the amount of energy received by Neptune is only about 1/900th of that received by Earth, yet the intensity of weather phenomena on Neptune is far greater than on Earth. [3]

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Extra-planetary weather

Aurora Borealis
Aurora Borealis

Weather is not limited to planetary bodies. A star's corona is constantly being lost to space, creating what is essentially a very thin atmosphere throughout the solar system. The movement of mass ejected from the Sun is known as the solar wind.

Inconsistencies in this wind and larger events on the surface of the star, such as coronal mass ejections, form a system that has features analogous to conventional weather systems (such as pressure and wind) and is generally known as space weather. The activity of this system can affect planetary atmospheres and occasionally surfaces. The interaction of the solar wind with the terrestrial atmosphere can produce spectacular aurorae, and can play havoc with electrically sensitive systems such as electricity grids and radio signals.

Aurora australis
Aurora australis
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References

  1. O'Carroll, Cynthia M. (2001-10-18). Weather Forecasters May Look Sky-high For Answers. Goddard Space Flight Center (NASA).
  2. Britt, Robert Roy (2001-03-06). The Worst Weather in the Solar System. Space.com.
  3. Sromovsky, Lawrence A. (1998-10-14). Hubble Provides a Moving Look at Neptune's Stormy Disposition. HubbleSite.
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See also

Atmospheric sciences [cat.]
Meteorology [cat.]
weather [cat.]
tropical cyclones [cat.]
Climatology [cat.]
climate [cat.]
climate change [cat.]

Portal Atmospheric Sciences
Portal Weather
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